The Self-Improvement Trend

This continues The Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas

Another trend that welcomed Miller’s new ideas in the 1980s was a growing demand for self-improvement, which had already become a national pastime. Here people committed time to reflect, discuss, and read. This trend went beyond baby boomers in therapy. It affected almost every profession and vocation. A leading name was Dale Carnegie (1888-1955), who wrote the iconic book How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936 to explain how to develop self-confidence as the key to personal success.[1] Sales skyrocketed thirty and forty years later, and a whole franchise of events, training, and publications flourished then, just as Miller’s book was being written and published.

Improving confidence was a fundamental theme in self-improvement. Another game-changer was published about the time Miller’s book appeared in English, but the author had to work harder than Miller to earn a seat on the bestseller lists. The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth was written by M. Scott Peck (1936-2005) and published in 1978 as a hardcover by Simon + Schuster, which paid a cautious $7,500 advance to secure all rights. Sales were lackluster, but Simon published a lower-priced paperback two years later. Sales were still sluggish. Peck worked tirelessly to promote his book, which hit the bestseller lists in 1984[2] where it stayed for over a decade. His efforts paid off, but the number of readers had grown exponentially, too.

Bookstores became dominated by a “self-improvement culture.” Almost every genre had options for self-improvement, or learning skills as a way to grow personally. Woodworkers and engineers and parents and teens were reading how to improve one’s confidence, health, and intelligence. Even mysteries and novels had characters involved somehow. The energy devoted to self-improvement–and the focus on self that it involved–emphasized themes from Carnegie, Peck, and similar leaders. Miller’s idea of being liberated from one’s past trauma also was incorporated into the milieu. Her psychoanalytical theories had become popularized. By 2008, self-help books had grown into a $12 billion book market, with media like The Oprah Winfrey Show amplifying the many themes and ideas in homes and ordinary lives of ordinary people across the country. [3]


[1] Wikipedia contributors. (2020, August 1). Dale Carnegie. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 9/18.2020

[2] Jones, Arthur. (2007). The Road He Traveled: The Revealing Biography of M. Scott Peck.

[3] Micki McGee. Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life (Oxford 2005). And, Wikipedia contributors. (2020, August 19). Self-help. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 9/19/2020

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